This February is the celebration of Purim, the Jewish holiday honoring Queen Esther of Persia who in 5th century BCE stopped the massacre of the Hebrew population by acknowledging to her husband, King Xerxes that she was Jewish and asking him to save her people.
Luckily she had beauty and youth on her side and the King still liked her because she’s credited with stopping the planned entire massacre of Jews.
Thus Purim is a happy holiday and part of the celebration is eating such traditional foods as hamantaschen, a triangular shaped pastry typically filled with fruit, large rounds of braided challah bread said to be a reminder of the rope used to hang Haman, the King’s grand vizier or as we would say these days, advisor, who came up with the idea of the executions.
Jewish cookbook author Leah Koenig shares recipes commonly eaten during Purim as well as other desserts in “Little Book of Jewish Sweets.” But Koenig isn’t afraid to jazz up old recipes, a type of reinvention of Jewish foods. The author of six cookbooks including “Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes & Customs for Today’s Kitchen” and her Little Book series, her recipe for challah (which by the way is available at Bit of Swiss Bakery on certain days of the week), becomes a bread pudding with raspberries and chocolate
“From breadcrumbs and grilled cheese sandwiches to French toast, there are many ways to transform leftover challah into something new—a luscious bread pudding studded with chocolate and juicy raspberries is a particularly delicious one,” she writes in her introduction to the recipe. “Challah has a soft and tender crust, which means there is no need to remove it before tossing the bread into the custard.”
With baklava, the classis Middle Eastern and Greek dessert of phyllo dough layered with walnuts and honey, she goes beyond the typical by adding figs, making, in her words, a confection that is at once familiar and new.
Koenig does the same for hamantaschens by adding a touch of lemon zest and cinnamon to an apricot and walnut base.
Over the years as she’s researched her cookbooks, Koenig says she came to realize how global Jewish cuisine is.
‘Jews have lived and cooked pretty much everywhere in the world, maybe barring Antarctica,” she says. “So really the inspiration behind the book was to try to capture how Jews eat today across the world and capture a little bit of the history of how Jews used to eat.”
Makes about 3 dozen cookies
21/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter or nonhydrogenated margarine, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Water, as needed (optional)
3/4 cup apricot jam
11/2 cups walnut halves
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp finely grated lemon zest
1/4 tsp kosher salt
Make the dough: Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt into a medium bowl.
In a stand mixer or with a handheld electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat to fully combine. Add the flour mixture in three additions, beating on low speed and scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary, until a firm but pliable dough comes together. If the dough looks too dry, add water, 1 tsp at a time, until the desired consistency is reached. If the dough looks too wet, add additional flour, 1 Tbsp at a time. Knead the dough a few times in the bowl to bring it together, then form into a flat disk. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or up to overnight.
Make the filling: Place the jam, walnuts, cinnamon, lemon zest, and salt in a food processor and pulse, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary, until a chunky paste forms. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350° and line two large, rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Remove half of the dough from the fridge (keep the other half wrapped and chilled). On a lightly floured surface, using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough until it’s 1/4 inch thick. Using a 3-inch round cookie cutter or glass, cut out as many circles as possible and carefully transfer them to the prepared baking sheets. Gather the dough scraps, reroll the dough, and cut out additional circles.
Spoon 1 rounded teaspoon of apricot-walnut filling into the center of each dough circle. Fold the left side over on an angle, followed by the right side. Fold the bottom flap up, tucking one end under the side flap to make a pocket (the filling should still be visible in the center); pinch the corners firmly to seal. Repeat the rolling and filling process with the remaining dough.
Bake the cookies until lightly golden and browned at the corners, 15 to 18 minutes. Remove from the oven. Set the baking sheets on wire racks to cool for 5 minutes, then transfer the cookies to the wire racks to cool completely. Serve at room temperature. Store covered in the fridge for up to 5 days or in the freezer for up to 3 months.
Challah Bread Pudding with Raspberries and Chocolate
Serves 8 to 10
8 oz challah, cut into 1-in cubes
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
11/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1 cup fresh or thawed frozen raspberries
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
Confectioners’ sugar for serving
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 2-qquart baking dish. Spread the cubed challah in a single layer on a large-rimmed baking sheet. Bake, stirring once or twice, until toasted and dry, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool.
Whisk together the eggs, milk, cream, brown sugar, vanilla, and salt in a large bowl. Layer half of the bread into the prepared baking dish, and sprinkle evenly with half of the raspberries and half of the chocolate chips. Top with the remaining bread, raspberries, and chocolate chips. Pour the cream mixture over the top, gently pressing down the bread to encourage soaking. Cover the dish with a kitchen towel and let stand for 30 minutes to allow the custard to soak into the bread. Check that the oven is still set to 350°F.
Bake until puffed and golden brown, 30 to 40 minutes. If the top is browning too quickly, loosely drape a piece of aluminum foil over the dish partway through baking. Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 to 15 minutes. Serve the pudding warm or at room temperature, dusted lightly with confectioners’ sugar. Store leftovers covered in the fridge for up to 3 days.
1 pound walnut halves
1 1/2 cups dried mission figs, stemmed and coarsely chopped
2 tbsp light brown sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1-lb package frozen phyllo dough, thawed
1 cup unsalted butter, melted, or coconut oil or vegetable oil
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup water
1/4 cup honey
1 cinnamon stick
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tsp rose water
Make the baklava: Preheat the oven to 350°F and lightly grease a 9-by-13-in baking dish. Place the walnuts, figs, brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt in a food processor, and mix until the walnuts and figs are finely ground.
If necessary, trim the phyllo to fit the baking dish, then place on a flat cutting board and cover with a damp kitchen towel. Fit one sheet of phyllo in the bottom of the baking dish and generously brush with melted butter. Repeat seven times, brushing with butter after each layer to make a stack of 8 phyllo sheets. Spoon half of the nut and fig mixture over the phyllo and spread evenly. Repeat the process with 4 more phyllo sheets, brushing with butter between each layer. Spread the remaining nut and fig mixture over the top and repeat the process with 8 more phyllo sheets.
Bake until the top is lightly golden and crisp, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool for 5 minutes, then use a sharp knife to cut the baklava into squares or diamonds in the pan.
Meanwhile, make the syrup: Stir together the granulated sugar, water, honey, and cinnamon stick in a medium saucepan, and set over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring often, until the syrup thickens slightly, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice and rose water. Let cool slightly. Discard the cinnamon stick.
Carefully spoon the warm syrup over the slightly cooled and cut baklava, taking care to pour syrup along the cut lines. Let the baklava sit for at least 2 hours before serving to allow the syrup to soften the filling. Serve at room temperature. Store covered at room temperature for up to 3 days.
The above recipes are reprinted from Little Book of Jewish Sweets by Leah Koenig with permission by Chronicle Books, 2019.